The “product life cycle” concept was first introduced by the marketing rock star Theodore Levitt in 1965 in his classic Harvard Business Review article. 55 years afterward, we can safely incorporate it into the phrase 'nothing is certain except for death, taxes and the product life cycle'.
It's amazing how an old-school idea remains as relevant as ever for an edgy SaaS market. It offers startups the ability to predict what will contribute to positive growth in the future, instead of learning from the mistakes of the past.
Product Life Cycle: Concept and Strategies
The classic graph for the product life cycle is a sales curve that progresses through four stages:
- Introduction – a sharp rise as a product getting off the ground;
- Growth – a period of the sharpest rise;
- Maturity – a sustained, rounded peak in sales;
- Decline – a gradual decrease in sales that leads to withdrawal from the market.
How do marketing strategies change during the product life cycle? They must develop along with the changes in product, market, and competitors over the product life cycle. Let's consider how product life cycle strategies work with examples of top-notch SaaS companies.
Marketing Strategies for the Introduction Stage
The Introduction stage of the product life cycle starts from the moment when the product or service first comes to market. During this stage, the marketing goal is to create awareness and make the audience try a new offer.
The Introduction is no way the time you want to prolong — it’s the painful moment of big spending, big losses, struggle to break even, and unknowable risks. 92% of SaaS startups fail smashed by the Introduction. If you’re going to spend effort, time and money getting your business off the ground, you better have a go-to-market strategy.
Go-to-market strategy (GTM) is basically a plan of how a company acquires, retains, and grows customers. So what is product life cycle marketing strategies for the first stage?
The theory offers three main GTM strategies: sales-led, marketing-led and product-led. The marketers argue about which one is better. The practice shows you’ll probably need a proper mix of them.
Do you remember how your company adopted Slack? I don’t know your story but let me tell mine. Once Max heard about Slack from his friend, started using it with his team and after a while, the whole company was on Slack, and no one had an idea of how it worked before. Sounds familiar, right?
Business software sale algorithms require us to reach the C-suite, hold several rounds (and many months) of negotiations that would be worth a ton of money and give uncertain results. Slack just showed up in the workplace unannounced, with no salespeople, prezzies or calls. End users found the product and asked the boss to buy it.
That’s what we call a successful product-led strategy. The strategy assumes using your product as the main vehicle to acquire, activate, and retain customers. Simply put, you make every effort to create a product that people consistently recommend to friends and colleagues.
In the case of SaaS, the right pricing strategies at different stages of product life cycle can support bottom-up distribution with minimal effort and cash infusions.
Product-led go-to-market strategy fueling the fastest growing software companies, like Slack, Notion and Dropbox. No wonder that “product-led” became a buzzword, often contrasted to old-school “ineffective” sales- and marketing-led strategies. However, marketing is not about abandoning the old and welcoming the new. We know that Max first learned about Slack from his friend. But how, pray tell, his friend knew about the app?
To support their product development efforts and get maximal exposure Slack worked with multiple PR agencies that promoted Slack’s unique hook: “The Email Killer” in the top tech media. In a short time, the company got published in TechCrunch, The Verge, Fast Company, VentureBeat, Inc.com, etc.
Using traditional marketing channels helps to gain momentum and trigger product-led growth, but it usually costs tons of money. Google Ads PPC prices can exceed $50 per click from the most expensive keywords in competitive industries like law, insurance, loans, etc. $50 per click is not what startups can usually afford, so they go into content marketing.
A smart content marketing strategy can deliver three times more leads than paid advertising and, what is more important, unlike PPC, it creates a compounding effect, where traffic from previously published articles adds to traffic from newer articles.
TaxJar, a SaaS focused on solving a sales tax problem, made helpful content a cornerstone of their go-to-market strategy. The idea of becoming the number one educator in the industry is not something new when we speak about subjects like marketing, where people like Neil Patel and brands like Hubspot ceding the entire space for a long long time. However, entering an industry like tax, you may see a lot of low hanging competitive differentiator fruits on your radar.
Sales led strategy
Slack was designed to sell itself, with its simple intuitive product and a generous free plan. Even though the company has a sales department and adds elements of sales-led strategy as they expand into the enterprise market.
The sales-led strategy works perfectly for B2Bs that sell services, and it’s partially how we find clients for our design services at Eleken. On our very first screen, in the upper right corner, you see the big bright shiny button inviting you to talk about your design goals and find out how we can help.
Marketing Strategies for the Growth Stage
When the awareness is there, comes the Growth stage of product life cycle, characterized by the sharpest rise in sales. Early adopters continue using the product, and the later buyers start following their lead, especially if they hear favorable word-of-mouth. The first profits are now beginning to come in, the growth curve spikes up.
The sharp rise never lasts long, so at this stage our aim is to climb up the curve as high as possible to maximize a market share.
How the company can maximize a market share during the Growth stage:
- Spend on improving the product and developing new features.
- Enter new market segments and grow sales further by selling through new distribution channels.
- Shifts marketing efforts from making consumers try the product to making them prefer the product.
Though, running uphill, the firm faces a new pitfall — a trade-off between high market share in the future and high profit now. By investing money to gain a strong position in the industry, improving the product and developing new features, it gives up maximum current profit. It’s a necessary sacrifice which the company hopes to make up in the next stage
The second pitfall comes along with the competition. Fighting for a market share is a zero-sum game when the gain for us is exactly offset by the loss of the other players. So you need to knock out the companies that already hold a market share. At the same time, you need to resist the pressure from new competitors that enter the market attracted by the opportunities for profit.
When thinking about product life cycle extension strategies examples, the story of Notion comes to mind first. Now Notion is booming on the market of productivity apps, but long before it appeared, the market already had a visible leader — Evernote. Over the past two years, Notion became viral and managed to shatter Evernote’s position.
Notion also creatively poaches customers from its competitors by boldly calling out unsatisfied users of Evernote to leave their old elephant. They have built a dedicated resource to help such users migrate to Notion in just a few clicks.
Competition is there even for innovative products. If you’re offering a new way of solving a problem, you still need to poach users of an old solution. In the case of Slack-the-email-killer, such an indirect competitor was a habit to use emails for internal communication.
Marketing Strategies for the Maturity Stage
The Maturity phase represents the height of a product’s adoption and profitability. The highest point of the curve here depends on how well the job was done on the Growth stage.
The first sign of maturity is market saturation — when most of the target consumers are already using the product. The aim here is to extend the maturity phase and maximize profit while defending market share.
The maturity stage normally lasts longer than the previous ones, and it poses strong challenges to marketing management. Competitors begin to cut prices, increase their advertising and sales promotions, and raise their budgets to improve the product. These steps lead to a drop in profit. Some of the weaker competitors start dropping out of the industry, and the industry eventually contains only well-established brands.
Let’s consider the example of Evernote. In its heyday, the company consistently ranked as a top-ranking productivity app. But its maturity stage turned out to be pretty dramatic — the company cycled through four chief executives, several rounds of layoffs, three office closings and the shuttering of numerous side projects.
When Evernote’s growth began to slow in 2015, the company tried to identify new demographics for the product and chose to concentrate on enterprise software. However, the product lacked essential features and was complicated to use, so sales of Evernote’s business product never exceeded 15 percent of revenue.
Evernote tried to increase the revenue by inspiring more usage among present customers — but in the wrong way. Unlike Notion, which developed a new feature and asked users to pay for it, Evernote took away some features from the freemium plan and moved them to more expencive editions forcing users to pay more. Needless to say that they were unhappy.
In the meanwhile, the product has developed a “unique collection of bugs” pushing old fans to leave Evernote for more convenient and often free note-taking apps, like Google Keep or Apple Notes. Two years ago, tech blogs declared the company was in a “death spiral” due to flat user growth and a lack of enterprise adoption.
Since then, Evernote has made considerable progress in its new apps, rebuilding them from the ground up and shipping software faster than they have in years.
Evernote’s story represents the full spectrum of marketing ups and downs the company can make struggling to keep the balance on the maturity life cycle stage. In the project’s blog Ian Small, Evernote's CEO, explain product life cycle strategies in his unusually frank blog posts on the company's progress.
Marketing Strategies for the Decline Stage
Sales decline for many reasons, including technological advances, shifts in consumer tastes, and increased competition. The Decline stage of product life cycle may be prolonged, as in the case of malls that quietly ceding ground to online shopping, or rapid, as in the case of foldable paper maps killed by smartphone navigation.
At some point, because of the decline in sales, the cost of running the project exceeds the profit it makes. The management should identify declining products timely to make a decision whether to maintain, harvest for cash or drop the project.
Some companies choose to withdraw the product from the market. The list of projects killed by Google, for instance, numbers into the hundreds.
Those companies remaining may optimize their expenses to the minimum. They may concentrate on the most profitable market segments, drop the prices, and cut down the marketing budget.
There's also an option to modify and resurrect the product, as Steve Jobs did to Apple that almost failed in the 90s. His efforts resulted in one of the brightest business comebacks ever.
To sum up
You never know how long each stage will take or how high the graph will rise. You don't even know whether the project go behind the first stage – as we remember, 92% of SaaS startups fail smashed by the Introduction.
But, knowing your product life cycle and marketing strategies at each stage, you design a proactive marketing approach. You know generally what’s coming next, what challenges you may face, what decisions you should make, and what questions you need to answer to execute timely and successful marketing campaigns.